Interview: John Cooper Clarke Talks Punk, Fashion, Lost Poems, His Upcoming North American Tour & More
The iconic John Cooper Clarke, infamous for his combinations of custom crafted poetry, sharp satirical wit, melancholic language, and hilarious political puns is making his way back to North America with a 10 city tour in the U.S. and Canada. The tour kicks off on April 30th in Las Vegas and culminates in Toronto on May 16.
His acerbic, satirical, political and very funny verse, delivered in a unique rapid-fire performance style, resonated with the punk movement of the 70s. John became a figurehead for that movement and all it encompassed; John Cooper Clarke’s late1970s/early 1980s major label recordings are still influential today. Poet, movie star, rock star and comedian has collaborated and toured with The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello and Alan Ginsberg. And now, 40 years later, his work remains just as relevant as it was then.
In recent years Cooper Clarke has been a part of two worldwide # 1 albums. John’s first book of poems “Ten Years In an Open Necked Shirt” is one of the world’s best-selling poetry books. He is currently negotiating a new book deal for an imminent release. At home in Britain, Cooper Clarke’s trademark skinny flamingo profile, with its jaunty cockscomb of hair, is more identifiable than ever. The much-loved cultural icon is the subject of a BBC documentary, Evidently John Cooper Clarke.
While preparing for his upcoming North American tour, Dr. John Cooper Clarke chatted with Louder Than War on a broad range of topics, from the dawn of punk to his favourite poets, as well as matters of fashion, film, Martin Hannett, Sex Pistols, lost poems and more.
As a prelude to your upcoming tour, you recently paid a visit to Los Angeles where you played what seemed to be a rather impromptu show.
You caught that? That was so great, I was so happy about that. I’ve been trying to get back into the States for a long time and am happy to just be able to go there. I never worked in LA but never worked there before. I was expecting like 50 sentimental old punks but in less than 7 days the from the announcement of the show to the actual gig itself, they had to turn away as many as that were in the venue itself. It was beyond my expectations. It was so important to me. I I know I come across as very flip person in most areas but if I hadn’t made it in Los Angeles I would’ve been destroyed. Destroyed.
What did you make of your time in L.A.?
Everything I ever loved in life has emanated from Los Angeles, most of the time. Raymond Chandler and all those old moviemakers didn’t have to travel very far and why should they, when they have that beautiful landscape at their disposal? And guaranteed lights.
For most of my early life movies were everything to me. So just to see that eternal landscape is thrilling to me like the feelings people get when they go to see the pyramids. But the main thing is the landscape the cityscape of Los Angeles. The flat roof, Mediterranean style and even the new builds follow a kind of generics look really follows. I find it really attractive, I like that it’s kind of featureless was I think gives a vibe all of its own. I would love to live there.
You mentioned your love for film – some of your favourites?
How long ya got? I recently got a james cagney box set and it don’t get much better than that I love those old movies. Im very easy I tend to get box sets as birthday presents. John Wayne & James Cagney are two of my favorites and that’s before you even get to the chicks.
When did you last play in the States?
Did some shows in New York, Philadelphia, Palo Alto and San Francisco and have paid a visit to Los Angeles back in 81 but didn’t play L.A.
Have you ever lost any of your poems?
Lost poems? Yeah, yeah I have. I lost a whole book of them in the 80s. A whole book of new stuff, yeah. Volume wise, I’ve lost a bunch but I have made it up over the last 5 years…you know, I am writing like a mother fucker now. I even got an office. Yeah I go in there and keep office hours. I tell you who does the same thing, Nick Cave. I found out he does the same thing. You can’t just go shmying around thinking you’re going to get inspired. You know you gotta put the hours in at the desk.
Do you punch in daily and adhere to a writing schedule?
Typical day..I get up, have a pint of espresso and a couple of bread rolls and yeah I go to the office. I am lax on myself. 8 hours would be an obsessively good day. I usually finish around 5-ish and then maybe get a martini, relax and eat something.
How many poems (published or otherwise) have you written?
Oh shhhhh..i couldn’t possibly…thousands, well into the thousands easily. And then I kinda look through them and I think, how many of these can I picture for an audience? You know you write loads of poetry if you’re a professional, but some of it isn’t condusive to a live audience expecting to be entertained. So that is when the selection process begins.
And what becomes of those not making the cut for stage/record?
I never throw them away. I just don’t think they are even finished, but maybe abandoned at some point. Sometimes, years later (even decades) I see a glaring fault in something that I have been reading and think, I’ve got to do something about that. So every one of the poems, its never really finished even those that are out there now. So I don’t throw any of it away. Even if a poem doesn’t work in its entirety. You would never have carried on that long if there hadn’t been a few killer lines in there.
Are there any unreleased tracks from the Martin Hannett era?
Well strange you should bring that up. Apparently there is more than I thought there was, and its coming out in a box set soon to be released by Sony records. There’s lots of outtakes and bootleg stuff that I have never heard. Different treatments of stuff that turned into other stuff. You know, done things in a way that didn’t work out so I would take bits from them and it would turn into something else. A few lyrics from elsewhere and jam them into something completely different. We were just messing about at the time because I never worked with musicians. Not in that way anyway, with music and poetry. I had worked with musician with the odd garage band before, but with this, I didn’t know of those guys (the musicians) apart from Peter Shelley a little bit. Mainly they were members of a band called, Dougie James Soul Train. So they were gifted musicians, but had never done anything like that before, so it was all new to me. Nobody knew what they were doing exactly. It wasn’t thought out much. So there’s loads of stuff that never made the cut and that I ain’t heard myself.
He was quiet a secretive guy, Martin Hannett. He would be recording when you didn’t know he actually had been recording, which never did the CIA any harm. He was a bit naughty about it you know, we were supposed to be making a hit record. What I am saying is there is loads of shit coming out all in a box set. Sort of established stuff that’s is already on other records, stuff I couldn’t tell you, or give you a solid gold guarantee as to which production values, so I guess it’s for completists.
What writers inspire you?
I like a guy called John Betjeman, an English poet, and I also like Edgar Allen Poe. Lou Reed, I think he was, in every sense, a poet, a man who refined language, you know what I mean? I think he is the best, really the king of the beat poets, at least I think. He made language work for him in a way. He had that kind of tin pan alley, cut out the shit and give it a name, but still very, very, poetical. So I love those people. But I love the great American songwriters you know from the Sinatra era. I listen to that stuff all the time, Rogers and Hart, people like that and you wonder how did they come up with this shit? Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer, I know every Sinatra song by osmosis. It’s the soundtrack to my life. Pre-Elvis and I just absorbed these songs with very adult themes. It’s the language I half understood at the time, not because it was American and colloquial, but because it was about the adult world which was a mystery to me as a child. But that was a kid of way in. And I would wonder, what did that guy mean by this? And then like maybe 25 years later, you found it, Bingo, I understand it. And that’s the way poetry works. And that’s the way poetry works! Things fall into place.
You know in this country, we just lost a minister of education who is a conservative, Michael Gove. He met with a lot of resentment from the teachers, as he had espoused what they saw as a reaction to their teaching methods, and one of them was, that pupils should learn poems/poetry off by heart. Which was met with howls of disapproval from many in the profession, but I guess the way they approach it, and I’ve been saying this for years, the way they approach it is, “help them to understand the meaning of a poem” as that’s the most important thing, but I say, bullshit. A 12 year old ain’t never gonna get subtext that was written by say a 25 year old or a 32 year old, it ain’t never going to happen. And the main thing about poetry anyway, is what does it sound like? You know, It’s a phonetic medium, it’s not meant to be digested in that literalist way. In my opinion, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, so I think it’s as good a way as any, to get a kid into poetry it to learn a poem off by heart. Sure you’re not going to understand it, you’re not going to understand it five years, but that will stay lodged in your conscientiousness and cometh the time, cometh the line from one of those 19 century poems. I think it’s a great way, the only way to learn and appreciate, that’s how I got into it. I don’t see how the education system can produce a poet like me the way they teach it now. You know so really, I’m kinda bit conservative in the way of the young learning poetry, but I think it’s the only way. It’s not a puzzle, it ain’t like a puzzle where you can get it (the meaning) right or get it wrong. No, it doesn’t mean that, it means this. That’s ridiculous. Poetry don’t work like that, bits of it dawn on you later in life, that’s how it works. That’s why people continue going to see, well not me, don’t get me wrong, but that’s why people continue to go to see a movie, or a Shakespeare play more than once, because poetry like the film or play allows you to see something you didn’t see the last time. Or like songs, sometimes you hate them at first. I’m like that with movies. I got that Cagney set and I’ve seen them all years ago, a thousand times, but you know there is always going to be something you missed. The scripts are so fantastic and Cagney is such an exhausting, riveting presence. You know his movies were 80 minutes, they were 10 minutes less than everone else’s. Jack Warner said, “they couldn’t take this level of energy for the full 90 minutes” unbelieveable, only Cagney made 80 minute movies. He would wear out the customers. What a guy.
You’ve done countless appearance on television, but do you recall what it was like a the time to appear on Tony Wilson’s show?
I do recall knowing how important it was, you know it was after the Bill Grundy thing I think, and Tony Wilson was the first person to put the Sex Pistols on at tea time. There were only 4 channels then so it was likely people would see them and other bands on the programme. Families eating together etc and Tony stuck his neck out and put them on at prime time and you know it all went on from there really. Tony was a regulation kind of newscaster, like the Kent Brockman of Manchester.
I was trying to sell myself and I remember a great deal of anxiety around that show. I can conjure up that level, but you don’t get that now. You don’t get that level of pressure now because, you know, you just get blaise about it and it’s not that unusual for people to be on television now, generally.
At the time it was quite unusual to get on television in those days ya know. And people didn’t have vid machines back then, at least not here, so if there was something on TV you wanted to watch, you would have to be at home at that time. (laughs). It was a more shared experience for our society back then, so to be on it, it was like “hey get it right” because you knew for a fact there would be lots and lots of people watching it.. And it being a local program, some of them would be your neighbors. There was more pressure being on TV then since it hardly ever happened. And people who were not interested in the first place would be watching, unlike now.
“I am not the one who will have his life turned into legend. It wont be me..it will be John Cooper Clarke” – Tony Wilson
Speaking of the Sex Pistols, were you at their first Manchester show?
Yeah, I was. I had just read a review of them in New Musical Express, and liked the look of them. It was accompanied by a little photo of Johnny in action and I figured wow, he’s a walking cartoon, I gotta see that guy. And I read the review about how they can’t be placed and I thought, well neither can I so we got that in common. But I thought if somebody is getting on stage they ought to be able to do something or why would you do that? So I went to see them the week after I read that review and yeah it was sensational. That was alongside two Manchester punk groups, one The Buzzcocks and the other Slaughter and The Dogs. So that was convincing and they were all really very diverse, they didn’t look cliché’d but there was a couple of constants that made it look punk and that was no flares, as well as you know short hair badly hacked up short-ish hair. No flairs and no beards. But you know there is always the exception to the rule, Hooky out of Joy Division. I’ve always admired him for that.
Lesser Free Trade Hall was maybe 200-300 capacity. It was kinda full as I remember it but it was not a large hall. If everyone who said they were there, were there it would have had to be held in an arena.
So what about the legend that only a handful of people were there?
That is not true, I was in the balcony area and I had a good view of the numbers and it was more than a handful as legend has it.
There were people who looked punky in the art colleges in Manchester before they even heard or had the chance to see the Pistols and I used to wonder, especially Linder, who used to do the graphics for The Buzzcocks, you know. I used to see her around, she was the first person I saw for instance with a kind of stylized bin liner kind of dress, safety pin earing, black lipstick, short hair, you know and she made it look great. Im not painting a very good picture, but she made it look really glamourous. And she was an art student at the time and I would look at her and I think her boyfriend at the time, Howard Devoto who at the time was the singer for The Buzzcocks, and they cultivated this kind of vogue-ish stylish glossy kind of look that was immediately enthralling.
It didn’t have a name and then by the time of that Pistols show, but there were a lot more people with that look. So you know it started in England and it was about as much about the clothes as it was the music, I think. So Malcom Mclaren and Vivenne (Westwood) you know, it always had that sartorial side to it, the look was as important as the sound. I guess the big example or templates for the sound would have been the Ramones. We got the Ramones here in about ‘75 and that of course was around the same time as Television. But, Tom Verlaine had achieved a level technical expertise upon the electric guitar that no 17 year old Brit could have possibly aspired to. It was like a new kind of classical music.
You mentioned fashion playing an important part in punk, as a fashion icon yourself, always looking dapper and dressed to the nines, who is your preferred suit maker?
(JCC playfully asks us to repeat the question while he makes sure his wife hears the question): Who me? Why thank you. That’s very kind. Oh there is a guy, a friend of mine, I know this is singing his praise. He is a real rock n roll tailor who will always make you look more attractive than you did when you walked in, Sir Tom Baker of Soho. Fabulous, fantastic stuff. I keep a limited color palate myself but if you are a younger person, he has something for you. He has some exquisite fabrics in there as well. I cant commend him enough.
Before performing, do you get nervous or pre show jitters?
I do especially when it’s in say, the States. Not so much in the UK. I don’t get nervous too much here. I know tickets ain’t cheap, and I reckon if they spent that much money, then they know what they are getting and there won’t be any trouble. So they all know what they are gonna get and I give it to them, so there is no conflict or really any excuse for nerves. However in the states, there might be people who are merely curious or don’t know nothng about me or even worse still don’t even bother to come. There are a million things that could go wrong for me, that is why I was so very happy about the Los Angeles show a little while back. But I don’t take any of that for granted in the states at home.
I’ve been trying to explain to people that in the States, if you do ok in say New York and Los Angeles, you ain’t cracked the states. That don’t mean you made any impression on America. You know these are places that where people live for one reason or another, know what I mean? Not having a go at the cowboys of Colorado either, but you know what I mean, they might not be interested in what is the latest craze and shit like that like in places like LA or New York. But wherever you are, BOOK EARLY and we’ll see you there!
|Thursday, April 30||Hard Rock Hotel||Las Vegas, NV|
|Saturday, May 2||El Rey||Los Angeles, CA|
|Sunday, May 3||Great American Music Hall||San Francisco, CA|
|Tuesday, May 5||Lincoln Hall||Chicago, IL|
|Thursday, May 7||Music Hall of Williamsburg||Brooklyn, NY|
|Saturday, May 9||Stage One||Fairfield, CT|
|Monday, May 11||World Café||Philadelphia, PA|
|Tuesday, May 12||Hamilton||Washington, DC|
|Thursday, May 14||Berklee Recital Hall||Boston, MA|
|Friday, May 15||Rivoli||Toronto, ON|
|Saturday, May 16||Rivoli||Toronto, ON|